What is reality?

It’s a short question, but a colossal one. A question that has been pondered by the greatest philosophical minds in human history: Plato, Hegel, Descartes, various extremely committed Redditors ...

One possible answer is that the "reality" we inhabit is a construct designed in such a way that we're not even aware of it—an idea known as simulation theory. Legendary science fiction author Philip K. Dick became convinced that this was the case, telling fans in a speech in 1977, “We are living in a computer-programmed reality.” Dick claimed that a dose of sodium pentothal he was administered for an impacted wisdom tooth allowed him to briefly see the world as it really was, and he spent the rest of his life examining the idea of falsely created memories through his fiction.

Dick’s speech frames A Glitch in the Matrix, a new documentary by Rodney Ascher (Room 237). It's a beautifully made collage of pop culture reality-bending with input from anonymous believers in the theory, who share their testimonies while transformed into 3D animated avatars.

"A glitch in the Matrix"—defined

While the title namechecks the Wachowskis' 1999 film The Matrix, few people seem to be under the impression that the actual events of that movie—in which human minds are harnessed as energy sources by machines—are taking place. The expression “a glitch in the Matrix” entered the lexicon over the past two decades to mean anything that seems like it couldn’t possibly be real, including eerie coincidences, deeply unlikely occurrences, and any incident that seems to defy logic. In the movie, experiencing déjà vu is explained as the code of the Matrix rewriting itself, resulting in a momentary glitch—Neo sees the same cat twice, for example, which is a clue that the world around him is being reshaped in real time.

The term simulation theory was coined in its modern sense in a 2003 essay by philosopher Nick Bostrom, who makes an appearance in A Glitch in the Matrix. The idea posits that of three possibilities—that no civilization will ever reach the point where a simulation is possible; that no civilization would have any interest in performing a simulation; or that we are in a simulation right now—the third is the most likely. And that as soon as more than one simulation is run, the numbers are heavily on the side of us inhabiting a simulated reality rather than a base reality.

The nature of simulation

Rodney Ascher's A Glitch in the Matrix (2021).Magnolia Pictures

While people interpret the nature of the simulation in different ways, Bostrom leans toward it being run in a future world as a way of people examining how their ancestors lived. Others see it as more of a Fortnite or Minecraft-esque sandbox world built for entertainment.

As a concept, it's somewhat similar to the Mandela Effect, or the idea of shared false memories. Nelson Mandela’s actual death in 2003, and writer Fiona Broome’s certainty that she remembered him dying a decade earlier, is what led to the term, which is often applied to childhood ideas like Froot Loops being called Fruit Loops or the Berenstain Bears being called the Berenstein Bears. This is occasionally combined with simulation theory and attributed to the code of the simulation being rewritten. What both have in common is arguably functioning as an expression of arrogance. Which is more likely: misremembering an ephemeral detail from childhood or history being retroactively altered by mysterious all-powerful forces?

Simulation and dehumanization

Unfortunately, where it leaves the realm of amusing thought experiment and gets dangerous is in the dehumanizing of others. If the world around you isn’t real, then nothing matters. And if the people around you aren’t real, they don't matter either. A phrase from the world of video games, non-player characters, or NPCs, is used in the film, attesting to the idea that those around you are simply going through the motions while you exist on a more profound and complex level than they do.

As in the tragic case of Joshua Cooke, also known as the “Matrix Killer”—who tells his story in the film via a phone call from prison—perceiving those around you to be less-than-human can’t help but impact the manner in which you are likely to treat people.

Cooke, a huge fan of The Matrix, shot his adoptive parents with a 12-gauge shotgun in a bid to determine whether or not he really was trapped within the illusory world shown in the blockbuster. He was horrified by the uncinematic results, saying, “It messed me up really bad, because it wasn’t anything like I had seen on The Matrix. How real life was so much more horrific. It kinda jarred me.”

Cooke ended up pleading guilty to his crimes rather than claiming he was in the thrall of reality-bending ideas, but the “Matrix Defense”—a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity—has been used on numerous occasions in court. In 2002, Tonda Lynn Ansley shot her landlord and successfully used the defense in Ohio; two years earlier, Vadim Mieseges had used it in San Francisco.

Binary beings

Even if you're convinced that the people around you are made of ones and zeroes, in practical terms, isn’t it mostly the same as if they were real? Shouldn’t you try to be the best person you can be, even if you believe the world around you is just a facade?

“That’s one question among many that I hope the movie encourages people to think about,” Ascher tells Mental Floss. “I believe there are moments within it when one or another person we featured makes an attempt to answer it. I’m usually a little embarrassed by the results when I try to take a crack at answering it myself. Ultimately it’s a variation of a question wrestled with by ordinary people, religious leaders, and philosophers for thousands of years.”

The ambiguity of it all, and the impossibility of knowing for sure, might ring a bell. If one were to break simulation theory down to its most basic parts, it's essentially the idea that a powerful, unseen creator made you and the world around you and observes everything you do in a way that, however convinced you might be of this creator's existence, can never be objectively proved. Which means that, despite the high-tech nature of simulation theory, it’s not really a million miles away from Genesis or most religions' creation myths.

“In many religious traditions, this world is not the only world—or even the most important one,” Ascher says. “In Christianity, if you spend an eternity in heaven or hell, the amount of time you spend on Earth becomes increasingly trivial and insignificant. This world is the demo mode.”